Hall of Fame Chronicles Rock’s Role in Politics

Exhibit coincides with GOP convention before moving to DC for inauguration

Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:57pm


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is getting political this campaign year, orchestrating a multimedia presentation designed to connect the dots between music and the most pressing social issues of the past few decades.  

The nascent “Louder Than Words” exhibit — which is scheduled to debut Friday in Cleveland and will run concurrent to the Republican National Convention in July  — provides a unique perspective on American history  since the Eisenhower administration, organizers say.   

“This is not a music exhibit. It’s a history exhibit told through the lens of music,” Todd Mesek, vice president of marketing and communications for the museum, said of the wide-ranging exposition.  

[Cleveland Better Brace for Its Close-Up]
Archivists were tasked with showcasing the pivotal moments when music and politics have intertwined, an exhaustive search that resulted in the funneling of carefully curated materials into eight categories: civil rights, LGBT issues, feminism, war and peace, censorship, political campaigns political causes and international politics, Mesek said.  

Artifacts featured in “Louder Than Words”

  • Guitar on which Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969
  • Guitar Eric Clapton played during a 1971 benefit concert for Bangladesh
  • Items related to the Ohio National Guard-led shootings at Kent State University in 1970
  • Items related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement

“Music either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo. And so, every artist is political,” guitarist and activist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine says in one of the many interviews with high-profile artists incorporated into the exhibition.   

That theory is playing out in real time across North Carolina. A growing number of performers are pulling the plug on previously scheduled shows to protest the recently enacted law requiring individuals to use public restrooms corresponding to their sex at birth — a mandate critics maintain discriminates against transgender people .  

[In North Carolina, LGBT Bill Is Political and Personal]
Musicians, Mesek noted, have railed against social injustice for ages.  

Motown artists created feel-good hits, to be sure. But hits such as “Dancing in the Street,” Mesek asserted, could also contain veiled calls to action for African-Americans.   

“It’s a little bit of a dog-whistle … an acceptable way to say, ‘We’re gonna stand together,’” he said of the underlying message


Times changed. And so did the messengers, ranging from the pro-equality Village People (“It came about as just fun and entertainment. But then there were rumblings, ‘Is this activism?’” Mesek said of the disco kings) to the Scorpions’ anti-communist anthem “Winds of Change” (“They kind of have a voice in tearing down the Berlin Wall,” Mesek said).  

The constant is socially conscious artists willing to fight for what they believe in.  

Once such clash occurred in 1985 on Capitol Hill, when concerned lawmakers debated whether adding warning labels to provocative albums — a proposal advanced by the self-styled Parents Music Resource Center — was sound policy. 


“That was an important moment in censorship,” Mesek said.

[Congress Rocks Spotify]
Congress crossed paths with the music industry just a few years later — although this time the outrage was directed inward.  

The trouble started after Milt Ahlerich, FBI assistant director for public affairs, in August 1989 fired off a letter to Priority Records expressing reservations about N.W.A’s polarizing hit, “F— Tha Police.”  

(Courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)
(Courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)

“Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers,” Ahlerich chided label executives.  

The stunt caused House Judiciary Chairman Don Edwards to publicly warn the feds about overstepping boundaries. “The FBI should stay out of the business of censorship,” the California Democrat later told the Los Angeles Times .  

Mesek finds the entire incident fascinating.  

“The government stopped, took notice and said, ‘We have to address this.’ That’s power,” he said.

[Wave of Prince Memories Washes Over Washington]
A symposium is scheduled to take place the same week as the Republican convention but the museum staff has not yet nailed down all of the particulars. Supplemental programming that has been approved includes sessions from June through August surrounding historic rock benefit concerts, as well as a June 29 screening of “Free to Rock.”  

“Rock and roll was certainly a contributing factor to ending the Cold War,” President Jimmy Carter says in the trailer for the 2014 documentary .  

“Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics” is scheduled to move to the Newseum in Washington just ahead of Inauguration Day 2017.  

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